A decade ago when I left my doctoral studies to enter full-time ministry, it took a lot of letting go of ego for me. In fact, it would have been impossible for me to do without supernatural grace. My heart and mind were full of fear of what not completing my PhD studies ‘said about me’. I didn’t want to be a quitter. I and others had invested so much into my studies – it would be such a pity not to finish it. And I hated the thought that other people would think I had been incapable of completing the degree and the shame that quitting would bring me and my parents. Yet when God spoke into my heart, I knew that His call was true, and I knew I needed to leave what I knew and step into the unknown. At that time, this was the biggest thing I had ever had to give up for God, and in return I was flooded with a peace and joy I had never experienced. But now, a decade later, I realise that giving up my studies and a potential career in academia was just the first step God was asking me to take in surrender.
When I entered full-time ministry, I was full of zeal and hope to use everything God had given me for His Kingdom. I wanted to use my gifts, my talents, my education and any experience I had in life up to that point for building up the Church. I thought I had so much to offer God when in fact I was so full of myself without realising. I wanted to do everything well and I wanted everything I attempted to be a success because it was for God and God’s people, or so I thought. I was filled with ideas and visions of what could be and I pushed myself and others really hard to create and fulfil those visions and it never occurred to me that God might not want what I want for His Kingdom. (I laugh about this often now with Him.)
Within a little more than a year I started experiencing burn out. After the honeymoon phase was over, there were painful realities to face about human nature, politics, all kinds of conflicts, and the most painful realities I was brought face to face with was the brokenness within myself. With each external difficulty I encountered, prayer revealed something within me that God was calling to conversion. Pretty soon I went from thinking I could do great things for God’s Kingdom to thinking that I was so broken and flawed that I would only make a bigger mess of God’s Church! Of course both of these attitudes were just opposite sides of the same coin – EGO. It was still all about me and what I could do or what I could not do.
The grace of those difficult times was how they pushed me to prayer because prayer always opens things up for me. When I cried to God that I was too tired, that there was too much to do in too little time, He responded by asking me to take a second look at what was on my plate and to check again if HE had asked me to take those projects on. (Discernment often revealed that the majority of things I took on had not been commanded by Him.) When I grieved about how some project or someone I was mentoring was not turning out the way I had hoped, God would respond by asking me if it was His will I desired or mine, and if I really trusted Him. (Self-examination usually revealed that it was my will that directed me instead of His and that I had a hard time surrendering both projects and people to God.)
When I started to slow down and listen to God before acting, I found even more challenges waiting for me. For example, when I met with volunteers and ministry leaders to try to get them on board some new parish project, I started hearing the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit to check in on them first. When I started doing that, I began noticing how many people were burning out without their own awareness and how many of them were taking on more and more work even when their plates were already full. I began noticing the tensions below the surface of leaders who did not know how to say ‘no’, of strains in marriages and families of people who have no time to communicate with their spouses because they were so busy with ministry and parish projects. I found myself having to decide if these ministry leaders’ well-being were more important or having them help me ‘do God’s work’ was more important. If I were to slow down to tend to them, or help them realise their own need to slow down and tend to themselves, that would mean changing or even giving up on plans that had been made and risking looking bad because I cannot get the job done. Which do I choose? Loving my neighbour or ‘success’ in ministry? The fact that I strained under the tension revealed to me how much my labour in the vineyard was still about me.
Another area of struggle for me was when my efforts were not appreciated and when I was misunderstood. It was then I realised how attached I was to being appreciated and how important my good name was to me. There is nothing unnatural of course with wanting to be appreciated and liked or honoured, but in the trenches of ministry I quickly became aware of how these natural needs borne from my insecurities and need for affirmation got in the way of giving myself wholeheartedly to God and others. In my prayer time I sometimes asked the saints whose lives inspired me – how did they get past these very human obstacles to laying down their lives? The answer came back swiftly: At some point they became so full of God’s love that they were too occupied with loving to stumble over things like rejection, misunderstanding, persecution, failure, or the loss of their good name. They were so filled with the power and the urgency of the Good News that they allowed the Holy Spirit to bear them gladly where they would rather not go. They did not waste time protecting their own legacy when all they desired was to unite themselves to Christ’s sacrifice for the world; they sincerely rejoiced in becoming less so that Christ could increase.
But perhaps the greatest invitation for me to let go of ego came when I found I could not become more secure in God’s love or more courageous or selfless even when I wanted to. In that struggle I came to realise that even my desire to grow in holiness had become about personal achievement rather than self-gift in response to God’s love, and that God was inviting me to give up my pursuit of holiness and let Him pursue me instead.
So I have begun again, and continue to begin again every day at the beginning. Daily the pattern plays out – rising and stumbling, and learning to let my stumbles become tumbles deeper into God’s grace and mercy. These falls into supernatural grace in turn make it possible for me to let that pesky ego die just a little bit more so that both in my life and my ministry, I might decrease and Christ increase.